Although I am a ‘morning person’, I must admit my body resists doing practices in the early hours of the day. Traditional yogis believe yoga should be practiced very early in the day for a variety of energetic, physical and mental benefits. Some of these benefits I can agree to especially with regards to tapping into the grounded brain waves from sleep and setting a harmonious energy for the day ahead. Aside from the energetic qualities, I have come across research that can give strong reasoning for why some people could readily benefit from doing yoga later in the day.
I am certain that I am not the only one who feels more ‘loose’ and receptive in the muscular tissues later in the day. When I practice early in the morning, muscles and joints tend to take more time and patience to release and receive the poses. I feel this the most in the lumbar spine and in the kinetic chain flowing down the back of the legs. Being quite susceptible to lower back issues, I , then, find myself having to be extra cautious when practicing in the morning.
I came across research that supports my intentions and the need to be extra cautious in the morning when taking my practice into the lumbar region. Looking at the structure of the vertebral column, we have individual vertebra that contain connective tissue in the shape of discs in between each vertebra designed to absorb shock and create structural connection. These intervertebral discs have a fibrous outer body and a gel-like inner core – they sort of resemble a jelly doughnut.
When we bend or arch, the body of the vertebrae compress the discs causing the gel-like core to move to one edge. If the compression is excessive, the gel-like component can press enough on the outer fibrous layer to cause a herniation of disc. This herniation can press into nerves within or projecting from the vertebral column leading to pain, numbness, and/or reduced motor function.
What research has found is that overnight (while sleeping and being horizontal), the gel-like component of the discs rehydrates (fluid increases) thus increasing their volume. During the day, with regular activities and the natural compression forces due to gravity, the discs loss some of their hydration.
Rehydration is a good thing in terms of shock absorption qualities, but this research found that the increased volume of intervertebral discs in the morning can make the discs more susceptible to herniation especially with regards to yoga poses that take the body into deep hip/spinal flexion (ie Paschimottanasana – Seated Two Leg Forward Bend / Uttanasana – Standing Two Leg Forward Bend).
Does this mean we should not do yoga in the morning? Of course not. My suggestion (even regardless of this specific research) is to practice when it suits you the best (energetically, physically, emotionally, and when most convenient). Practicing when it suits you best helps sustain motivation and consistency.
From a physical perspective, if you wish to practice in the morning (out of convenience or to honor the traditional practices), keep this research in mind. Knowing that the intervertebral discs have greater tendencies for compression injuries in the morning, insure the following:
*Perform ample warm up poses before doing any deep hip flexion poses (especially with ones requiring lengthening of the back of the legs). The hamstring muscles are a limiting factor in the movement of the hips in forward bends. In the morning, the hamstrings likely have greater resistance. If the back of the legs are holding deeply onto the sit bones, you should reduce the degree of hip flexion in poses and pay close attention that your forward bends are not being driven forward from the lower back (tip: always feel that your abdomen is lengthening as you bend forward and not compressing)
*Perform preparation poses that will release muscles that cause resistance on the hips and sit bones:
– Downward Facing Dog with ‘heel walks’ to release the hamstrings and calf muscles
– mild Half Hanumasana / Runner’s Stretch to isolate one set of hamstrings at a time
*Consider entering forward bending poses first with soft knee(s) to insure the flexion movement originates at the hip joint – once this proper motion is established, then experiment with easing length into the back of the legs
Break tradition! If your practice comes from a genre or yoga tradition that always starts with sun salutations or poses/sequences that immediately take you into deep forward bends, give yourself permission to break away from those traditions and experiment with preparation warm-ups and poses. See if this creates a difference in your practice. Same suggestion applies to teachers – fully consider the needs of the students and that most people often require preparatory measures in order to ease into their ‘edge’ and full depth of poses.
Experiment with awareness and find the style and timing that works best for you overall.
For extra info on Moving With Safety and Awareness in Forward Bends.
Research source: ** spinal flexion during the first hours of waking, when disk hydration, internal pressure and disk injury risk are greatest (Adams, Dolan & Hutton 1987; Dolan, Earley & Adams 1994; McGill 1998)